In a world of jump-scaring sequels the discerning horror fan has long since embraced intense foreign imports. European, Japanese, and Korean films have all hit the mainstream while Australia remains overlooked. The Loved Ones (2009), directed by Sean Byrne, has had little recognition outside its country of origin. But we should pay attention to it. Byrne’s feature-length debut challenges the way we look at the whole ‘Torture Porn’ sub-genre.
In the post-Scream horror movie landscape, so many films are mired in references. The Loved Ones is no different. Set on prom night, the film has inevitably been compared to Carrie, but spoiled psychopath Lola bears no resemblance to the timid telekinetic. More accurate is a likening to Kathy Bates in Misery. There are some directorial homages too, choices of shots and cuts that could be taken straight from a Tarantino flick. Outside the hall of mirrors which is film history, Sean Byrne has stated he drew upon the real-life Jeffrey Dahmer murders when writing and directing. Unless you’re already ghoulishly familiar with the crimes you probably won’t spot this inspiration. This source material does bring a mundane explanation to one of the film’s few tired elements, however, making it fresh and frightening. This is not the first time the actions of an infamous serial killer have been exploited by horror films. Ed Gein infamously provided inspiration for horror greats including Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The last of these is coincidently the biggest cinematic reference in the Loved Ones.
The film opens with the protagonist, Brent, losing his father in a car crash. His family is left in disarray: Brent was driving and his mother struggles not to blame him, while he turns to self-harm and self-destruction. But he still has a girlfriend who loves him, so when the deceptively shy Lola asks him to the prom he turns her down. Lola does not take rejection well. With her dad’s help, she kidnaps Brent and stages her own twisted take on prom night. It soon becomes clear that this isn’t her first time.
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For the majority of The Loved Ones our protagonist is tied in a chair, forced to participate in a grisly parody of prom night. The table is long and rectangular; the prisoner sits at the head, the family of tormentors arrayed along the sides. The resemblance to the demented dinner scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is unmistakeable. The captives in both films even make the same number of escape attempts. Then there is Lola’s slipup with the drill, which recalls the Texas grandpa dropping his hammer. Both inject a similar dark humour and delay the gore—and this teasing wit is part of what sets Loved Ones apart from so many ‘Torture Porn’ films.
There are some ways in which Loved Ones diverges from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The “guest” of the family in the Loved Ones is male. Correspondingly, the chief patriarchal roles of the Texas clan have been assumed by women. The shrivelled, immobile, bloodsucking grandpa of Texas has been replaced by the shrivelled, immobile, roadkill eating Bright Eyes. Lola meanwhile is so wilful and domineering that even as the daughter she rules the roost in her family, taking on the controlling parent role of the cook from TCM.
Lola (played by Robin McLeavy) is the best thing about this film. Along with her drill and her pink paper crown, she fully deserve to be as iconic as Leatherface, with his chainsaw, and, well, his “leatherface.” But we should not forget that before he was a horror symbol, Leatherface was a beaten and cowed wretch in his own family. Lola’s father is the amalgamation of the downtrodden Texas children. He collects roadkill like the younger son, but he casts his gaze down in Lola’s presence like Leatherface did with his family. Though Lola’s father has no compunctions about kidnap and torture, he has an incestuous attraction to his daughter that terrifies him. This attraction is one of the film’s few clumsy elements, as it’s treated as a reveal but is transparent from the beginning. Still his inability to act on his impulses, and his inability to refuse Lola anything, emasculate him, much as Leatherface was emasculated when he was forced to drag up as the family’s “mother.” It’s no coincidence I haven’t given you the father’s name; the director doesn’t give him one. He is deliberately subjugated as simply Lola’s assistant.
When people first watch Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, either they expect extreme gore, or they’ve been told it’s not as violent as you might expect. Both groups tend to be surprised. If you expect extreme gore, you end up realizing it’s not that gory by modern standards. If you expect an easy ride violence-wise, you’re not going to get it. The violence is often obfuscated with clever cuts. When a woman is impaled through her back we do not see it, but we have been voyeuristically made familiar with her back and we see her pain. The Loved Ones manages takes much the same approach to the ‘Torture Porn’ genre. If you expect a routine horror film, the violence will shock you. If you expect a ‘Torture Porn’ film, you will be surprised by the restraint and the suspenseful build-up to the gore. What Lola ultimately does with that drill will keep you guessing and dreading for most of the film.
There’s one final enlightening comparison to make. For such a cheaply-shot film, Texas Chainsaw Massacre did some stunning things with sunlight. Horror films too often plunge straight into the dark, but a sunset can make a satisfying tension builder. Texas Chainsaw’s ending finishes the night with a gorgeous sunrise. Is this a sign of hope? The family’s hostage escapes, but is she laughing from relief or is she mad? The Loved Ones is less ambiguous. It lasts a full night too, but the ending is undoubtedly optimistic. By suffering, surviving, and fighting, the hero rediscovers his love of life. The Loved Ones takes us to some gruelling places, but it does not seek to devastate. It may surprise you to learn this film has been called the perfect date movie. But it won’t surprise you after watching it. The Loved Ones is a whole new breed of film. A ‘Torture Porn film that by the end turns life affirming.
Mat is a Hull history graduate. He researches and writes for a project on Doncaster, his hometown, in the First World War. He’s a huge nerd for horror films and musicals, and is a reluctant member of his local running club. You can find him on Twitter at @MatFrl